It is difficult to imagine the British labour movement without Tony Benn. All on the left will miss him and the simple arguments he put for socialism. The man once demonised by the press as “the most dangerous in Britain” was declared a “national treasure” at the end. But the abiding animosity towards him shone through some obituaries.
The Sunday Times declared Benn a “charming old poisonous irrelevance”. The Guardian suggested “part of the British left he led became…deeply conservative if not actually reactionary”. This is as insulting as it is nonsensical: the man spoke on every campaign platform of substance from an Anti Nazi League rally in 1978 to the millions-strong Stop the War march in 2003 and was president of the Stop the War Coalition up to his death.
Benn did not start on the left but spent four decades on it after performing that rare feat for a politician of becoming more left wing as he grew older. Campaigning journalist Paul Foot noted, “Tony Benn is unique. For a century Labour MPs have been going to parliament…but ended up changing only themselves. He went to parliament to change himself but ended up determined to change the world.”
Benn was in parliament for 51 years, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee for 34 years, a member of every Labour government from 1964 to 1979 and in the cabinet for most of that time.
He wrote speeches for Labour leaders Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson. He drafted Labour election manifestos. He oversaw party political broadcasts and issued party statements. He supported nuclear power. He championed Concorde. He was variously technology minister, industry minister and energy secretary.
In the mid-1960s he suggested a distinction between “the Tory party as the champion of those who own industry and Labour Party as the natural ally of the managers and the people who run it”. When the Labour government attempted to restrict unofficial strikes in 1969, Benn wrote, “I was in favour… You simply cannot have disturbance in the system anywhere without us all suffering.” He subsequently noted, “In the years up to 1968 I was just a career politician.”
The Guardian obituary’s sour dismissal of him – suggesting “the only thing that would have damaged the left more than Benn’s failed attempt to capture the Labour Party would have been his success” – shamed the paper.
Tony Benn’s bid to become deputy Labour leader in 1981, a position he came within a hair’s breadth of winning, did not damage the party. Leading figures on the Labour right did that – Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers – by breaking away to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), now part of the Liberal Democrats, and splitting the Labour vote at the 1983 general election.
The animosity towards Benn came from three sources; establishment hatred for someone who renounced privilege and challenged it; the hatred of business, financiers and media proprietors for one who challenged their power; and the hatred of Labour Party figures who did not share Benn’s desire for change.
Benn’s greatest legacy is his diaries and the record they offer of Labour in office and the subsequent attempt to transform the party. As early as 1965, as Benn tried to have the Queen’s head removed from stamps, he noted, “My instructions have simply not been followed.” He concluded of Whitehall officials, “Unless you watch them like a hawk they simply don’t do what they’re told.”
He moved sharply left from the late 1960s amid a wave of working class resistance, strikes and factory occupations, which climaxed in the miners’ strike of 1974 that toppled the Tory government. Benn’s Diary for 1968-72 opens “on a Labour government enjoying an enviable parliamentary majority of 90 seats”.
Benn wrote, “The pages chronicle the decline of a government which experienced office without power.” What followed was “a sharp radicalisation of the Labour movement as a whole” which led to “my own radicalisation”.
Benn visited the work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971-72 and called for “workers’ control in the yard” – although Benn barely seems to have noticed the Battle of Saltley Gate during the 1972 miners’ strike – it does not rate a mention in his published diary.
He also noted only in passing, on 11 September 1973, “There was a coup by the junta in Chile and President Allende was murdered.” The fate of Allende’s Labour-style government was a decisive event for many who saw a parliamentary road to socialism.
However, Benn did grow exasperated at the faintheartedness of Labour colleagues. In early 1974 he confided, “These chaps would capitulate on anything. None of the top Labour leadership has any guts.”
Returning to the cabinet as industry minister in 1974, he was optimistic: “I can see my way now in breaking industry’s resistance to my policies. I shall win over the managers and the small businessmen… I shall isolate the big Tory companies,” he wrote.
Benn subsequently noted of his permanent secretary at the department, “[He] has been working to rule since we arrived. It began when he asked, ‘Are you seriously going to try to implement your programme?'” Benn realised, “The Department acts simply as a mouthpiece for the CBI.”
The Diaries record the development of his thinking. In his forward to the volume on 1963-67, Benn summarised the lessons he took, “First, how the permanent civil servants work to preserve their policies against any minister who wants to change them or challenge their power. [Second] how the [Labour] leader ran the party almost as if it were his personal kingdom. Every Labour prime minister…can sustain himself by endless appeals for loyalty and unity.
“Third, as a minister I experienced the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by the use of the crudest form of economic pressure. Fourth…the power of the media ensures the events of the day are always presented from the point of view of those who enjoy economic privilege.”
He concluded, “Britain is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team.”
This realisation did not lead Benn to withdraw from the management team. He never broke from Labour. Indeed, he never broke from a Labour cabinet of which he was a member – even from the Callaghan government of 1976-79 which raised unemployment, cut benefits and held down wages so that workers’ living standards fell.
Benn recorded telling his press officer, “I thought opposing it from the inside was the best thing to do.” He justified remaining in the leadership, saying, “The movement wants the government sustained.”
In October 1976 he noted, “I have absolutely failed to persuade the government not to do what it is about to do…but I mustn’t bring the government down.” In December the same year he wrote, “I entirely share the view that the survival of the government is in the national interest.” That Christmas, Benn recorded, “I read the Communist Manifesto yesterday… I felt so ignorant that at the age of 51 as a socialist politician I should never have read that basic text.”
By January 1978 he was convinced, “This is the death of the Labour Party… All the growth on the left is going to come up from the outside and underneath.” Yet he never followed his own logic.
When Labour lost to Thatcher in 1979, Benn told his Diary, “I have the freedom now to speak my mind…and I intend to take full advantage.” That defeat and the experience of Labour in office sparked the biggest swing to the left in the party in a generation. Paul Foot described Benn’s campaign for deputy leader as “electrifying the political scene”. But it came as the level of workplace struggle turned down and the Tories began a long offensive.
In the 1983 election, following the SDP split, Labour won its lowest share of the vote since 1918. Benn hailed the result as establishing “a democratic socialist bridgehead”, arguing, “A party with an openly socialist policy recorded the support of over 8 million people.” The truth was very different. Benn subsequently recognised, “After 1983…the party reduced public expectations to the simple objective of installing Labour ministers in office.”
Fortunately, Benn kept up his diaries, insisting, “My decision to publish is a political act.” He loathed Neil Kinnock as Labour leader, noting in 1984, “His interviews are like processed cheese.” When Kinnock stood down, he wrote, “Thank God that man was never prime minister.”
His Diaries for 1991-2001 chronicle “the birth and development of New Labour, of which I am not a member”. Blair’s victory, he saw, “was built on…a desire by most electors to remove the Conservatives and an equal desire by the Establishment to retain Conservative policies”.
As a result, “New Labour found itself in a position of unchallenged political power, able to do almost everything.” And what happened? “Under the banner of modernisation many policies of the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s reappeared.”
Benn strove “to show the enormously powerful nature of the forces ranged against the…Labour movement”. Yet he remained convinced that outside the Labour Party lay only a wilderness. He insisted, “There is a radical element and that element sought to be able to live within the Labour Party… I don’t believe you can build a new socialist party.”
On New Year’s Eve 2007 he confided, “I feel totally out of sympathy with the Labour Party…and perhaps the only answer is to die.” Sadly, it appears this was the only way he could conceive of leaving.
Despite a lifetime’s commitment to parliament and elections, in an article for the Guardian in 2011 Benn wrote of the “need to replace the whole capitalist system”, looked to “recent events in Tunisia and Egypt” and recognised a central tenet of revolutionary socialism when he wrote, “We do it ourselves or it will never be done.”
He was held up as a failure for not achieving high office. But Benn noted in 1971, “If you are going for high office, you have to be cautious and…I would rather stand up for what I believe.” Benn did that and we should salute him.
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